Deviance and Social Control

Theories of Deviance

Deviance and the Sociological Perspective

Sociology emphasizes the social context of crime and inequalities in society, as well as how they influence the behavior of different groups.

The sociological perspective is a theoretical viewpoint that sociologists attempt to use in order to analyze societies neutrally. Using the sociological perspective, sociologists who study deviance analyze how and why behavior is defined as deviant, as well as social factors that shape conforming and nonconforming behaviors.

Sociology considers how social structure, the organized pattern of relationships and social institutions that make up a society, might explain why people behave the way they do. This contrasts with other approaches to understanding deviance and criminality. For example, one early criminologist, Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) suggested that some people are born criminals and are thus biologically determined to break moral and legal codes of conduct. Psychological views of deviance often link behavior to personal experience or to personality types (such as serial killers and sociopaths). A psychological approach to studying deviance considers deviant behavior at the individual level, not the societal level. Sociologists emphasize the socially constructed nature of deviance. They often study definitions of deviance, as well as particular kinds of deviance, in order to gain an understanding of the surrounding social structure or to analyze the values and beliefs of a particular society.

Functionalist Perspective on Deviance

Functionalism defines crime and deviance as a result of the structural tensions and a lack of morality within society.

Functionalism views and understands society as a system of parts working together to maintain social equilibrium, or balance. Also called structural functionalism, this approach is a major school of thought in sociology. It sees society as a system of parts working together to maintain a sense of balance and social equilibrium.

An important early sociologist, Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), sought to understand how societies are structured and what forces create and hold them together. He explored how societies develop a sense of cohesion, the feeling of being bound together as a whole. He argued that societies develop a general agreement about norms and values, which allows them to function. This agreement, or consensus, can occur when there is social solidarity, a feeling of unity and shared interests. Durkheim described two forms of solidarity. Mechanical solidarity is the sense of unity between people who share ties, values, and beliefs, leading to cooperation. Durkheim wrote that mechanical solidarity characterizes small, homogenous societies, such as the premodern, agrarian societies that most people lived in prior to the Industrial Revolution. Organic solidarity is social unity that develops when individuals depend on one another for labor and services. Durkheim saw organic solidarity as a characteristic of complex, modern societies. Solidarity and social cohesion can be created and reinforced by following norms and by imposing sanctions (rewards or punishments for behavior).

Durkheim argued that deviance plays a necessary role in society. It serves to affirm and define social norms. Durkheim also developed the concept of anomie, a sense of loss and normlessness because of the breakdown of social bonds. A society experiences anomie when standards for regulating behavior break down. Societies need norms and social bonds in order to function. Deviant individuals not only help a society clarify its norms, but they also help to strengthen social bonds among members of society who embrace these norms. The use of sanctions to respond to deviance encourages most members of society to conform to norms, strengthening social cohesion and preventing anomie. Thus, Durkheim saw deviance as a fundamental element of society, serving to help a society define itself and reinforce its principal values and beliefs. Finally, Durkheim also pointed out that deviance plays a crucial role in social change, which only happens when people choose to be deviant. Because social change can positive, deviance can have a positive effect on society.

Reinforcement Theory of Deviance

Reinforcement theory focuses on deviance as a learned behavior.
Reinforcement theory posits that social behavior is shaped by the consequences that follow the behavior. In other words, people are more likely to behave in a particular way based on positive or negative reinforcement from outside sources. This theory is closely linked to the idea of sanctions—rewards or punishments that reinforce accepted behavior. The imposition or possibility of reward or punishment drives behavior. If a child, for example, is given a reward for good behavior, such as praise from a parent, reinforcement theory suggests that the child will be inclined to behave well for continued positive reinforcement. Conversely, people are less likely to behave positively when they are continually punished for their behaviors such as removal of privileges. This includes incarceration, the removal of freedom.

Deviance and Conflict Theory

Conflict theory views deviance as a response to structured inequality and oppression.
Conflict theory posits that society is characterized by conflict between social groups. Groups with unequal power and competing interests compete for scarce resources. This theory views authority and domination as tools used to maintain social order. When considering socioeconomic class structures, many theorists point to the social inequality and economic deprivation of poor people who are also not provided with the resources with which to escape poverty. Conflict theorists see deviance as connected to the state of being marginalized in society. Marginalization means that one's identity, concerns, and values are not given a central place in society, but are pushed to the edges. For example, having children outside of marriage is deviant behavior in many societies. Conflict theorists might argue that when low-income, single women choose to have several children, this choice is influenced by the marginalization of low-income women.

Merton's Strain Theory

Strain theory looks at the kinds of gaps that exist between the goals promoted by a culture and people's ability to pursue and achieve those goals.

American sociologist Robert Merton sought to understand why poor members of society are more likely to engage in deviant behavior than richer members of society. He argued that deviant behavior is shaped by a set of culturally accepted goals and a set of acceptable means or pathways to achieving those goals. He proposed strain theory, a model that represents the ways a society pressures people to achieve certain goals, whether or not they have access to the approved means of reaching those goals. For example, achieving wealth might be an important cultural goal. Accepted means to achieving wealth can include inheriting wealth or securing a high-paying job. But only some members of society actually have access to those means of achieving wealth. Many people have no hope of inheriting wealth. Some people can achieve a high-paying job by going to college or trade school or by using social connections. Others cannot afford to pursue education or do not have a social network that connects them with high-paying work opportunities. Merton defined conformity as accepting culturally accepted goals and using accepted means to pursue those goals. He argued that conformity to social norms is likely to occur when people are well positioned to pursue accepted goals through accepted means. But deviance occurs when people either reject the accepted goals or cannot pursue them through socially accepted, or institutionalized, means.

Merton identified ritualism as a type of deviant behavior by people who reject cultural goals but still work within accepted means. Consider a person who works but rejects the cultural goal of wealth and corresponding accumulation of property. This person might choose to live in a small, modest structure in the woods, isolated from society, and donate most of their earnings to charity. In these ways, the person engaging in ritualism embraces accepted means of acquiring wealth and property but rejects the goals themselves. Merton identified retreatism as another type of deviant behavior. Retreatism is the behavior of people who reject the goals and methods that society approves but do not replace them with anything else. People who choose to live off the grid, with little contact with outside society, who hunt and forage for food, and have limited or no use of technology fall into this category. Innovation, according to Merton, occurs when people embrace the goals of their culture but pursue them through unapproved means. Innovation is a type of deviant behavior that has the potential to result in positive social change. However, innovative behavior might include choices such as dealing drugs to achieve wealth. Merton defines rebellion as behavior that seeks to replace the approved goals and methods of a culture, creating new ones in their place. Activists exemplify this type of rebellion. Activists who reject capitalism, both in terms of the goal of wealth and the means for achieving wealth in a capitalist system, push for overhauling economic and political systems. They seek to replace capitalism with other structures, such as socialism or communism.

Merton's Strain Theory

Merton argued that society pressures people to pursue certain goals but that social structure makes it nearly impossible for many to achieve them. People adapt to this strain in five major ways. For example, wealth is a goal in many societies, with education and certain types of work being socially approved means to achieve wealth. Different individuals have different access to these approved means. Some individuals reject the goal itself.

Symbolic Interactionist Understanding of Deviance

Symbolic interactionism considers the role of social interactions in deviance and deviant identities.

Symbolic interactionism is a view of social behavior that emphasizes subjective understanding and interaction of the individual and society. Theorists consider the meanings given to people and places. They explore how those meanings are created from the interactions people have and their understanding of those interactions. In considering deviance, symbolic interactionism analyzes how people create and maintain deviant identities through symbols and interactions. For example, a vest worn by members of a motorcycle gang is a symbol of identity. Similarly, the interactions that take place in a mosh pit at a concert create or reinforce the identity of the fans.

Symbolic interactionists attribute deviance to the types of interactions people experience, as well as how people process information about their identities and the identities of their communities. The choice to engage in deviant behavior can be connected to the way people learn to behave early in life. For example, people who interact with deviant family members are more likely to behave in deviant ways themselves. If having large, visible tattoos is deviant behavior within a particular community, children whose parents have such tattoos might be more likely to deviate from community norms. Overall, symbolic interactionism highlights social interaction as the key component of an individual's predilection for deviance and of responses to deviant behavior. Symbolic interactionists might look at how social interactions shape the ways that individuals or communities react to deviance in general, or to certain types of deviant behavior.

The labeling theory of deviance is influenced by symbolic interaction. Labeling theory tries to explain deviant behavior by suggesting that people given a negative or deviant label by society can be influenced by that label. So if individuals are socially labeled as thugs or gangsters, this label then encourages them to behave in ways associated with the role of thug or gangster. Being labeled as deviant might also result in an individual becoming trapped in patterns of deviant behavior. Labeling someone as a thief, for instance, can trap the person in the identity of a thief and behavior such as stealing and lying. Labeling theory also explores how and why individuals continue to engage in deviant behavior even when they suffer negative consequences. One explanation is that their understanding of themselves is deeply tied to the deviant label they hold. People who are labeled as drug dealers may struggle to escape that label and acquire a nondeviant social identity. They may understand their identity as connected to a larger community of drug dealers. If breaking with the label of drug dealer also entails breaking with the community an individual identifies with, it is more challenging to develop or embrace a nondeviant identity.